Looking to change up your holiday routine by skipping all the usual traditions and jetting off to a place known for its fabulously festive holiday spirit? From charming Christmas markets and mulled wine, to musical performances and religious observations, holiday travel can add new joy to the season. Here are 10 amazing places in Europe to spend the holidays.
Not only is the Eternal City home to Vatican City — where you can attend Christmas mass and meet the Pope — but Rome also gets pretty creative in the holiday lights department, best enjoyed on a passeggiata (evening stroll). On New Year’s Eve, the city erupts in celebration, complete with fireworks.
See and do: The nativity scenes in St. Peter’s Square and Piazza del Popolo; the Christmas markets at Campo de’ Fiori and Piazza Navona; baroque Christmas concerts inside historic churches; and seasonal treats such as panettone (sweet bread) and a traditional Italian Christmas Eve dinner or Christmas Day lunch.
Located less than 45 minutes by train from Frankfurt, Heidelberg is one of Germany’s prettiest cities. It sits amid hills on the Neckar River with the photogenic 18th-century Old Bridge and spectacular red sandstone Heidelberg Castle as focal points. The city is also a charming spot to absorb German Christmas traditions. New Year’s Eve fireworks light the sky over the river.
See and do: Visit Heidelberg’s Christmas Market (set in Old Town’s five historic squares); shop the Hauptstrasse (one of the longest pedestrian zones in Europe); drink Glühwein (hot spiced red wine) and ice skate at the rink in Karlsplatz; walk the Winterwäldchen (Winter Woods) at the Kornmarkt; and warm up with soup, bratwurst, and the world’s strongest beer (33 percent alcohol) at Vetter’s Brauhaus.
The Czech capital is always ready for its close-up, but with the festive Christmas Market in Old Town Square in full swing from early December to early January it becomes simply magical. Add in the statue-lined, 13th-century Charles Bridge — with dramatic Prague Castle high above it — and the city’s holiday allure is irrefutable. On New Year’s Eve, streets and squares fill with revelers and the sky lights up with fireworks (top viewing is along the Vltava River).
See and do: Visit the Christmas markets in both Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square to shop for holiday trinkets, sip hot mulled wine or warm honey liquor, and try local winter favorites such as carved ham, sausages, dumplings with bacon, and cinnamon trdlo (a sweet, cylindrical pastry); walk Charles Bridge in both directions; enjoy a classical concert in Prague Castle; and sit down to a traditional Christmas Eve dinner of fish soup, fried carp, and potato salad.
For holiday joy it’s hard to top the Austrian capital, where imperial grandeur is livened by Christmas markets with festive stalls, twinkling lights, and warming food and drink — including a steaming Christmas Punch (Weihnachtspunsch), crunchy bratwurst, and hot roasted chestnuts. (The top markets are at City Hall, Belvedere Palace, and Maria-Theresien Platz.) New Year’s Eve marks the start of the Viennese ball season, so pack a gown or tuxedo if that’s your thing — or hit the streets to revel as the city’s church bells ring at midnight and fireworks brighten the sky.
See and do: Attend an advent concert at St. Stephen’s Cathedral or an opera, such as a New Year’s Eve performance of Johann Strauss’s “Die Fledermaus” at the State Opera; ogle the glittering holiday lights above Kärntner Strasse; hop on a sightseeing tram at dusk to enjoy the decorations along the Ring; and check out the multiple nativity scenes at St. Peter’s Church.
The holidays in France’s Alsace region mix the best of French and German traditions —Strasbourg even calls itself “the capital of Christmas.” From late November to the end of December, you’ll find charming Christmas markets (including the Christkindelmärik in Place Kléber, the oldest market in France dating to 1570) with hundreds of stalls and all kinds of tempting offerings.
See and do: Check out the Great Christmas Tree in Place Kléber; sample some bredele (small Christmas biscuits in the shapes of stars or trees); enjoy a Christmas concert by a local choir (every Saturday and Sunday throughout Lent); and walk the Promenade of Stars along the renovated Quai des Bateliers.
As if this Belgian city’s distinctive medieval architecture wasn’t already Instagram worthy, come Christmas season — when festive lights and garlands add a photogenic glow — it’s phenomenal. Bruges’ fairytale Old Town, with its romantic canals and cozy restaurants and bars, celebrates the holidays with, yes, a Christmas market in Grand Place (Markt), complete with an ice rink, horse-drawn carriage rides, and mulled wine. On New Year’s Eve, join massive sing-alongs as fireworks go off overhead.
See and do: Bundle up with your true love to enjoy an open-air canal cruise (the city’s famous swans are still a swimmin’); indulge in the treats for which Bruges is known (waffles, frites, and chocolate) at more than 50 shops, as well as holiday goodies such as speculoos (clove, cinnamon, and gingerbread cookies shaped like old Saint Nick; and duck into an atmospheric pub to sample seasonal Belgian ales.
The home of Hans Christian Andersen — and the bronze statue of his famous Little Mermaid — is famous for its wintertime activities and holiday traditions. And the Danes, known for their obsession with hygge (enjoying cozy pastimes with friends and family), are the perfect people to celebrate the season with if you crave new experiences and tastes. Copenhagen’s top sights go all out to celebrate both Christmas and New Year’s, so much so that you’ll hardly notice the temperature is barely above freezing.
See and do: Visit the 175-year-old Tivoli Gardens to stroll a true Winter Wonderland. Then head to Nyhavn to admire the Christmas lights and duck into a pub with a fireplace to sip a glass of hot gløgg (mulled wine); go ice skating at the Fredrickberg Rundell rink; and enjoy a traditional Danish Christmas Day lunch (julefrokost) of pickled herring, pork tenderloin or duck, rice pudding, and schnapps.
While the rest of the world has had to make do with just one Santa, Icelanders are raised believing in 13 mischievous Santas who visit over the 13 nights leading up to Christmas. Known as Yule Lads, they include the Bowl Licker, the Window Peeper, and the Sausage Stealer. Yes, Iceland is a quirky country — and a dark place in winter with just four hours of sunlight daily —and that’s what makes spending the holidays here so unique. But Reykjavik is a party city, so there’s plenty of merry to be made, including on New Year’s Eve when 10 bonfires are lit and so many fireworks go off it’s impossible to count.
See and do: Check out the Oslo Christmas Tree at Austurvöllur Parliament Square; visit the “Christmas Creatures” (including the Yule Lads) at the Reykjavik Art Museum (and buy an ornament of your favorite troll); soak in the warm thermal waters of the Blue Lagoon; and keep an eye on the sky to try to spot the Northern Lights.
Christmas hardly gets short shrift in the Scottish capital — festivities span six weeks with Christmas markets, amusement rides, attractions, and free events — but it’s Hogmanay that gets people most excited. Celebrated over three days (December 30 to January 1), it’s a whirlwind of street parties, torchlight processions, and concerts to kick-start the New Year.
See and do: Walk along the Winter Windows route (from West Parliament Square to Newhaven between mid-November and December 26), a line of stained-glass windows created by budding artists; shop for cozy tartan woolens; enjoy a whisky tasting in Old Town; learn about Victorian Christmas traditions at Edinburgh Castle; and don’t forget to try haggis (just don’t inquire too much about the ingredients).
Come holiday season, Switzerland’s largest city is adorned with 12,000 twinkling, crystal lights. Atmospheric Christmas markets (don’t miss the ones in Old Town and near the Opera House), advent concerts, a singing Christmas tree, and a spectacular New Year’s Eve fireworks display add to the seasonal cheer.
See and do: If you’re in town on December 19, don’t miss the Lichterschwimmen, when children set candles afloat on the Limmat River; head to the courtyard of the National Museum as it transitions after dark into the Illuminarium, offering a light show and food stands; if traveling with kids, hop aboard the Marlitram by Jelmoli for holiday story time; and indulge in raclette or fondue (with mulled wine) to chase away the cold.